In a rare and extraordinarily candid interview, the creator of Milk & Honey, now re-opened at a new site near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, lifts the lid on what working at its diminutive former home was really like, says what he really thinks about 'speakeasies' and takes a pop at people who over-intellectualise cocktails.
Sasha Petraske, owner of Milk & Honey, New York, is a reluctant interviewee. To anyone that knows him, this will come as no surprise. This is, after all, an man who changes his email address and cell phone number at least once a year, and who rarely attends events on the drinks circuit. He's not someone who likes to be pinned down, photographed or available on speed-dial. "I probably regret almost every interview I've ever given," he tells us when we finally get to talk. "I read the article afterwards, and think 'what was the point of that?'"
It's with something of a gulp that CLASS puts pen to paper...
But change is afoot and Sasha has good reason to talk. When we finally talk on the phone, he's in good form. And despite his enigmatic reputation, he's easy to talk to, down to earth, quick to laugh and upbeat about the future.
His empire - one that counts bars across New York and as far afield as Melbourne, Australia - boasts a new venue in the shape of a sister bar to Little Branch: Middle Branch opened on 33rd Street in late 2012. And, arguably more importantly, he has closed the doors on Milk & Honey's home in the Lower East Side at 134 Eldridge Street, and moved the bar two miles away to the Flatiron District, at 30 East 23rd Street.
The move marks a striking new beginning for a venue that has earned its place in the cocktail history books. Since it opened in Dec 31st, 1999, its hidden-within-plain sight presence made it the stuff of urban legend. Even if you managed to get the phone number to make a reservation, drinkers who thought they were in-the-know were taken down a peg or two when they realised the number had changed.
Entering Milk & Honey's low-lit, train carriage-sized site was like taking a step back in time. Its 1920s/30s soundtrack, drinks based on lost and forgotten classics and its rules for respectable behaviour harked back to a more genteel time - as well as providing a ready blueprint for bartenders the world over wishing to mimic the golden age of Prohibition.
Yet Sasha has had something of a love/hate relationship with Milk & Honey over the last 12 years or so. And now that he's got a new site, he's ready to talk: not just to promote the new place but to bust some myths about the old one. He's happy to talk about its financial limitations, its operational frustrations and he wants to put the record straight on speakeasies. And he ultimately wants the world to know he's no bar industry savant.
First: Milk & Honey may have had the mother of all 'hidden' entrances, but it was not by design. It's a fact worth repeating: Sasha never set out to create a modern 'speakeasy', a hidden bar that traded on its mystique. No, it was a fear of upsetting local residents that forced him to make the bar as 'underground' as possible. With hindsight, he realises that it would have been a far more commercial proposition - and easier in terms of bureacracy - if he could have actively promoted it.
"We had - had - to be reservations-only and to have a hidden entrance. The site was in a terrible neighbourhood in an owner-occupied building and I had to promise none of the residents would have any idea a bar was even there." To that end, he was somewhat successful: "A year after we opened I met a guy who lived across the street who didn't know we were there." On the other hand, keeping it on the down-low just made it all the more interesting to New York cocktail drinkers chasing their next thrill, leaving Sasha anxious about how long the residents and licensing authorities would put up with the resulting disruption. "Because we were reservations-only it led to limos turning up or waiting outside, something I deeply regret."
Today, Sasha feels, in equal measure, a responsibility and a revulsion for inspiring the global 'speakeasy' trend. He bemoans the fact operators routinely reference Milk & Honey when asked about their own influences. "People need to realise that unless a bar can work without the hype of being a speakeasy, then it can't stand up as a business. They are throwing good money after bad [creating 'hidden' entrances].
"There are so many people who do stuff that's just a joke, and it's unfortunate that a lot of them trace that lineage to my bars."
Next: the style and operation of Milk & Honey was not Sasha's original conception. In fact, most of his ideas came from East Village cocktail den Angel's Share. "It's important to say as so many people think I made this stuff up myself," he says. "I liked to think the tradition of cocktail bartending started in quiet environments and was kept alive in Japan during Prohibition. I've since learned that that culture only developed there during Japan's post-war reconstruction - regardless, I'm very thankful to whatever entrepreneur came to Manhattan and opened Angel's Share. It was exactly what I wanted in a bar."
Angel's Share was also the inspiration for the Milk & Honey rules. These included that gentlemen remove hats; gentlemen refrain from talking to ladies without being invited; that there be no noise, fighting or even talking about fighting; there be no 'star fucking' ie attempting to gain currency by your tenuous personal connection to a celebrity; not to bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home; not to linger outside the door; and more.
However, even if he was inspired by Angel's Share's rules, and even if they protected the bar's neighbours from noise, they dovetailed nicely with his own personality and values, and helped engender that all-important 1920s atmosphere. "The rules fill a need that's very under-served in American bars: people have to behave, they might drink a lot but it shouldn't be more than you can stand and you should always act like a gentleman."
For Sasha, the 1920s is no mere business gimmick. He likes the era so much he lives it 24/7, preferring to sport baggy trousers, suspenders, a long-sleeved shirt, sleeve garters and a four-pocket shirt than anything contemporary - he says he hasn't bought jeans in 15 years. "I'm fascinated by the period. On a cosmetic level, the clothing and music is so striking but I think it has something to do with the more innocent nature of the time. It was straightforward. A good suit was a good suit: you weren't making an ironic statement.
Next revelation: Milk & Honey was an economic failure and never made a profit. Actually, that confirms what a lot of people thought. "It lost money year after year," he says. While he managed to negotiate a low, $800-a-month initial rent precisely because of its location, he admits to striking out with a naively idealist vision of what running a business should be like, he had no financial nose for business and was stuck with a venue that was operationally flawed - more reasons, as he sees it, not to emulate the model.
"I assumed that every one running a business was rich and I didn't have a clear idea of economics. I'd never done inventory and I set high wages based on ethical beliefs - and then I couldn't take away the wages away even when the tips became high. I now know that at the centre of a good cocktail bar - and what separates a profitable business from a non-profitable one once the opening hype has calmed down - is the ratio of staff to customers. Back then I didn't realise having five staff for 24 customers was wrong."
He let idealism and ingredients get in the way of simple economics. "I wanted the very best ingredients and the cheapest prices. Drinks were $7 originally, but we were paying $5 for handmade metal straws. You can't actually sell drinks like that for $7 and I gave up on the idea of being an inexpensive bar relatively early in Milk & Honey's life, and the prices went inexorably up. I think - hope - New Yorkers respected that though."
The day-to-day running of the place was flawed operationally in other ways. For example, when the bar ran out of ice, the bartender had to walk 30ft in one direction, down some stairs, past the far door to the hallway.... you get the idea. "And the guy who did that was on double the average wage of a kitchen porter," he laments.
Fourth: Sasha does not want to be seen to be responsible for intellectualising cocktails and mixology. In fact, he wants to bring it bang back down to earth from its lofty, ivory tower. "Cocktails are not worth intellectualising, they are just something to be experienced. The fact that people talk about cocktails like one might talk about like wine, which you have to grow, is laughable. A cocktail is a simple thing - what matters is if you make it right. I very much believe in cocktail bartending as a profession but let's realise we are just repeatedly recreating something simple. Doing something well is wonderful but I never intended to create an over-intellectual, snobby thing and I welcome the chance to set the record straight."
It's partly this refusal to put cocktails and bartending on a pedestal or to acknowledge that Eldridge Street was anything approaching a hallowed space that has allowed him to uproot the concept. He says he had a realisation about two years ago that Milk & Honey was more than an address; that it would not die just because it wasn't in its original location.
"For years I laboured under the assumption that if I expanded in any way it would ruin it. But one day I was walking down the street and suddenly thought: if I make it better, more like my dream, then why wouldn't I move? Eldridge Street was a magical place but I couldn't ever change the physical space. It's an old, ratty building and it would have taken massive investment to make it smooth. I did consider letting the star fade. It's a bit of responsibility having a name like Milk's, but I came to the conclusion I'd be letting a lot of people down."
Reaching that decision was, he says, a "joyous" moment, a huge relief. Does he wish he'd moved it years ago? "One can never say 'if I knew then what I know now...' but I know my employees went through unnecessary work, and ultimately I realise that a reservation-only bar is a bad idea."
On the bar's last night on New Year's Day 2013, Sasha didn't arrive until 5:30am, but says there was one hell of a party. For all its disadvantages, the bar had seen a decade of good times. "I was young and the rent was low but at the end of the day you shouldn't be able to create a bar in such a small place and the fact we made it happen was amazing."
The new Milk & Honey, which opened earlier this month after typical bureaucratic and logistical delays, is more like Milk & Honey London, he says. There are two rooms, where a single bartender can serve 28, then there's a long hallway and a larger room for 44 people, served by two bartenders. Although much bigger in capacity, it still only needs five members of staff - Sasha ever alert to that crucial staff/payroll ratio. It's no longer reservations-only, though you can make them. There's no phone number.
Operationally it's just better structured, he's confident about it actually making money and even the rules are fewer now that he doesn't need to worry so much about local residents complaining.
The new bar has rekindled his love of bartending too. He's back at the stick, working Monday to Friday 1.30am-4.30am, despite not having pulled a regular shift for seven years or so. Having previously told how his heart would lift when he saw the curtain around the door flutter, heralding a new customer to welcome, he's transported back to the early 2000s. "I cannot overstate how thrilling it is, my heart jumps in the same way it used to."
He'll continue to personally train staff too, perpetuating his particular brand of hospitality. "I am a ruthless trainer. People cry sometimes but I never raise my voice." And he'll always expect his staff's passion for cocktails to be more than skin-deep. "Cocktail bartenders should drink cocktails. If you prefer a beer, you are a hypocrite and are morally wrong. You probably make bad cocktails too. It's like being an acupuncturist and going to see a western doctor when you get sick."
It's obvious moving uptown has been a cathartic process for Sasha, but we don't think he needs to be too hard on himself. Even if the first Milk & Honey wasn't a bloody great business, it was a bloody good bar, and has inspired more good than bad. For more than a decade, it has served as a benchmark for quality drinks and rigorous standards, and it's unlikely Sasha will be able to entirely shake off the 'enigmatic genius' reputation and be seen as just another bar operator.
We wish him well in his new home, though with Attaboy taking over the Eldridge Street site, and Sasha staying on as a minority, silent partner (he won't commit to an opening date yet - "I will never predict an opening date again, I've been wrong every single time without exception"), his relationship with the Lower East Side ain't over yet.
Reservations for Milk & Honey should be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.